16 September 2009

It's cool to be hip but not hip to be cool

A couple of days ago there was some discussion about the following article in some Usenet newsgroups. I was interested in it because of the use of the word "hipster". It seemed to be used with a meaning very different from the meaning I understood.

I'm interested in words and how they are used, partly because it used to be my job as an editor for several years, though it would probably be truer to say that I got into the job because of my interest in language and usage rather than the other way round.

Anyway, the article was The Daily Cardinal - Song causes local hipster to self-destruct:
MADISON, WI—Tens of twenties of Madison’s hippest are gathered in mourning this afternoon following the news of the tragic death of local hipster Charles “Wayne” Duchene, 22, who died a horrific and most likely cliche death late Monday evening at a Foo Fee Foe concert.

Duchene’s body was found in a puddle of his own PBR at approximately 11:15 p.m. Monday night at the entrance of The Dank Bank, an obscure venue located just off the Capitol Square.

Now this is a student publication and it's obviously satire, but they have to be satirising something. I had to ask about PBR, which I at first took to be one of those three-letter abbreviations for various medical conditions that hypochondiacs sprinkle their conversations with and expect the rest of us to understand. It transpired that it did not stand for something like Personal Bodily Refuse, but was an allusion to a local beer, though I gather many people who know the brew think there is little difference, but more of that later.

So what is a hipster?

As I understand it, a "hipster" was orginally a jazz fan, and especially a fan of "cool" jazz, a "hip" or "hep" cat.

In Beat Generation circles it was extended to mean someone who was hip to the lies of mainstream culture, and who disaffiliated from it and rejected its values, who did not get over excited over the things pimped by the advertising industry and so on, who was detached from all the frenzy about brands and fashion. That was the essence of "cool" in those days.

As Lawrence Lipton put it in his book "The holy barbarians" (Lipton 1959:150):
The New Poverty is the disaffiliate's answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honourable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an advertising job: 'I'll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.' It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.

So the hipster, or the beat, had a cool and detached attitude to the frenzy of the striving for success in mainstream society.

"Beatniks" were groupies or wannabes. The word was coined by a journalist by analogy with "sputnik" -- beatniks were those who were in orbit around the beat movement, but were not central to it.

By the late sixties "hipster" had got shortened to "hippie", and while the hippies were successors to the beats as a countercultural movement, they were a little less cool. To be "cool" suggested being detached, laid back, not excited by the constant changes of fashion and the striving for success. It was the role of a passive and cynical observer.

Hippies were more active, and more positive in trying not merely to disaffiliate from mainstream culture, but to try to create an alternative to it, an alternative culture and an alternative society.

But the impression I got from the article that sparked off this post is that the writer was using "hipster" in an entirely different sense, to mean something almost opposite from what it meant in the 1950s and 1950s.

I wondered how widespread that usage is -- can anyone explain the writer's usage, and do they share that understanding of the word today, and how did it get to mean almost the opposite of what it meant 50 years ago? "Cool" seems to have changed its meaning a lot in the last 50 years, so I wonder if "hipster" has likewise changed, so that it no means nearly the opposite of what it did back then.

I watch "Top Gear" on TV, and there they discuss what constitutes a "cool" car, and it is clear that their idea of "cool" is very different from mine. My 1961 Peugeot station wagon, with rusty door panels and empty cold-drink cans rolling around on the floor, bought cheap from an open air used car lot where a rickety wooden shack was the "office", bought on the "zero maintenance" plan, was my idea of a "cool" car, but I doubt very much if the "Top Gear" people are using "cool" in that sense.

Another thing that illustrates the change in the meaning of words like "cool" is Levis jeans. They were cool back then and they are regarded as cool now, for entirely different reasons, and for entirely different values of "cool". When I bought my first pair of Levis there was only one shop in Johannesburg that sold them, imported them from the USA. It was not advertised and nor were Levis. You learnt about it by word of mouth. It was also a decidedly unfashionable shop in a decidedly unfashionable part of town, Jeppestown, which seems to have escaped the gentrification that has transformed other run-down suburbs. Levis were the opposite of fashionable, tough working clothes that one bought a couple of sizes too big because they would shrink to fit. No one with any fashion sense would be seen dead in Levis. How have the mighty fallen!

But the guy whose death was described in the article in question sounded anything but "hip" to me, the very opposite of "hip", in fact. So I still wonder what the writer meant by "hipster", and whether other people understand "hipster" in the same way, and can explain what they mean by it.

To get back to PBR briefly, the Urban Dictionary defines it as:


abbreviation for pabst blue ribbon beer, which is simultaneously the best and worst beer ever brewed. it is typically on special at bars for twelve cents a pint. also doubles as a laxative.

Pabst Blue Ribbon is a lot like the band Bright Eyes,
Hipsters love it, but everyone else thinks its liquid shit.

Hipsters again. It's got to mean something in Wisconsin that is different from what it means in the rest of the world... or does it?

Perhaps I should retreat into the past, to when I was a wannabe hipster, and a wannabe beatnik (and if a beatnik is a wannabe beat, then a wannabe beatink is a wannabe wannabe). My twenty-year-old self went to visit Brother Roger, an Anglican monk of the Community of the Resurrection, whom I regarded as the authority on all things hip and cool (he lent me books by Jack Kerouac, and the Lipton book I quoted above, and many others besides). So I wrote in my diary for 23 June 1961

... later went to see Brother Roger. There he sat, outside the priory in jeans and sweatshirt, on the library steps, luxuriating in the sun studying Lipton's Holy Barbarians. Studying, yes, truly it is the text book, and he said that he had a book by Clellon Holmes, The horn, about a jazz man, and he says it in that zestful rapturous way of his, which makes me think he gets the utter limit of enjoyment out of everything he does. "It's wonderful," he says, "simply wonderful." And when he says it you know he really means it. He told me about what he is going to say at Modderpoort, and he isn't giving them Bloy this year, but Jean somebody. The Observer calls him the poet of evil, who has spent half his life in jail, and is something of a misanthropist and hates society, patron saint of the Beats. He gave me a play for the AYPA, by Charles Williams, called House of the octopus, and there was a boy there called Abel, a black boy studying for his matric, and says he is a cat and loves jazz, and Bach, and plays a clarinet which got broken. So I talked a bit to Abel and found he lives in Orlando where he goes to AYPA meetings and is staying at the priory during the vac to study. He is a nice cat, a hip spade cat.

The AYPA was the Anglican Young Peoples Association, a youth organisation with branches in various parishes. Modderpoort was the venue of the annual conference of the Anglican Students Federation, where Brother Roger was going to read his paper about the Jean somebody, who was actually Jean Genet (that was the first time I'd ever heard of him), and you can read his paper, Pilgrims of the Absolute, here.

Yes, I've written about this stuff before, sorry if anyone was bored, but I suppose those who have seen it all before wouldn't have got this far anyway.


Yewtree said...

Fascinating - I didn't know that a beatnik was someone who was in orbit around the beats, and therefore a wannabe.

Wiccan wannabes are sometimes referred to as "wanna-blessed-bes" which I find mildly amusing.

Steve Hayes said...


Wanna-blessed-bes... I like that. Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again... come to think of it, I haven't seen that for 10 years or more.

James Higham said...

Maynard G Crebs, I think it was - the original.

Malcolm said...

I'm equally confused about the current usage of 'hipster'!

As a "beat" I felt that the hippies had betrayed beat principles - too much in thrall to commercialism. In our circle we regarded the wannabe beats as "weekend ravers" rather than beatniks.

Confusion reigned even in those distant days!


Related Posts with Thumbnails